Would you drink wine solely because you thought it gave you a health benefit? Science seems to be behind the wine industry, exalting the phenolics and other natural compounds present in wine. Heart disease prevention would likely be the most common reason if you polled those who said yes to the first question. Sure, the Affordable Care Act helps a lot, but drinking wine is significantly easier, wouldn’t you say? What about the romantic factor? The wool and boot clad vineyard worker clipping away shoots is probably the enduring image that wine has in our society, not unlike coffee and Juan Valdez. I’ve even heard the assertion that we are naturally drawn to wine because grapes and their ferment have been part of our diet for millenia, a sort of symbiotic relationship that our inner animal yearns for. Does modern winemaking really attune itself to the romantic and the natural? As consumers I think that we assume it still does. The yellow tail drinker must be tapping a little into a greater wine-drinking image. They certainly aren’t likening themselves to a cola drinker, which may be closer to the actual truth. I do this little bit of inner bargaining myself all the time. Even when consuming premium wines, I rarely stop to think about what processing and additives may really be in there.
The common evolution for winedrinkers as their passion unfolds beyond basic consumption is to move towards wines that are more esoteric, have more of a story to tell. I see it all the time when selling wine. People start to pick up on the boring fruit and oak recipe if they’re paying attention to their finer senses. They may fall in love with high octane styles, but usually they come back down to earth. Commercialized winemaking has led to homogenization of wine flavours; we’ve all experienced the fruit bomb phenomenon. A sort of sense emerges when wines start to feel boring and soulless. So we start to look for wines that actually possess the qualities of romance and nature, wines made by passionate winemakers who are afraid themselves of modern wine making methods. Wine shops, who are often run be people who have had this very thought, will hopefully develop a set of principles around this very idea. Working in a wine shop, one of the most common requests is for low sulphur wine. Of course most wines don’t list their sulphur content, and most sulphur allergies are self-diagnosed. It is these types of situations that can bridge the gap between the esoteric, natural wine salesman and the commodity wine consumer.
What is a natural wine anyways? Regardless of how you make wine there is inevitable human intervention. Is foot-trodding grapes or putting grape juice in wood containers natural? No one wants to get too fanatical here. We can probably agree on a few principles, however. Sulphur additives, artificial yeasts, enzymes and sugar are the easy targets. If you’ve tasted wines made without these winery staples, you may have fallen for natural wine based purely on the natural flavour. You can just taste it; the wines have life to them in a way that’s hard to describe. Of course there are bad natural wines out there too, wines made from inferior places. The natural wine movement from a winemakers perspective may not have actually come from a desire to connect with the soil in the way we like to think. In Alice Feiring’s book Naked Wine, where she goes in depth with winemakers trying to eschew sulphur and yeast additives, she finds that the noble purpose of the natural winemaking gurus may have been simply to avoid hangovers. This leaves an intriguing door open to the scientific method for testing if wines are natural.
The notion of “natural” wine has become a hot topic over the last few years and it will be interesting to see if this is merely a blip. These producers are undoubtedly having their moment in the limelight but will they become mainstream icons and lead a natural wine revolution? I can imagine some of the outcomes from such a movement, where information about yeast selection, oak treatment, sulfer and other additives is displayed as prominently as alcohol percentage. Not that producers have ever lied about alcohol percentage. Customers in restaurants and wine shops will likely not be interested in the nitty gritty details of natural wines, but surely they will understand the general meanings of the catchphrase. Plus there is a purity of aroma and flavour in natural wine that they will be able to discover, even if it means leaving the delicious but fake confected fruit flavours behind. In the end, hopefully we see more natural wines, and in general more winemakers willing to take risks for their customers.